Taking Chances with Nashville Hot Chicken

I somehow managed to get myself talked into cooking the entrée round of an impromptu progressive dinner this past weekend. I'd be frying sweet and spicy fried chicken for around 16-20 people.

This was not my intention. I'm not known for my risk-taking. But after having recently connected with some really great folks in the local food industry, I'd suggested to my friend BJ (a server at a resort restaurant out at the lake) that perhaps some of them would like to stop by for a little dinner party. I enjoy cooking for relatively small, intimate groups of people - it "caters" to my introverted nature (i.e., enjoying intimate conversations and making meaningful/lifelong connections over a nice glass of wine while a pot of braising meat bubbles away on the stove).

My friend BJ took the idea of a dinner party and ran with it, and I suppose the theme of movement stuck with her, because she immediately suggested we turn it into a "roving dinner party."

"You mean a progressive dinner?" I suggested, recalling the two or three I'd been dragged along to by my parents in the late 70s and early 80s.

"Sure, yeah, whatever," she agreed, naming several folks she thought might like to take part. They were all food dudes I'd tried to half-heartedly connect with on some small level as a fellow food worshiper. But kitchen culture is pretty tight - they're a close-knit family and outsiders are often seen as, well, simply diners, or customers.

I'd sat in their dinning rooms and bars, aching to join in the culinary conversations that take place between the front and back of the house. But if you've never worked in a professional kitchen - exhausts fan whirring, hot fires burning and Chef barking orders, or waited tables - full-on in the weeds less than half an hour after opening, you're like a fish out of water. 

This was my chance to make a connection, to offer up a small sample of my home-grown culinary skill to people who did this for real. Not wanting an epic fail, I requested to do the appetizer - stop #1 of the roving dinner (the name stuck). A small offering of yummyness that, if found lacking, would probably go unmentioned and forgotten after three more courses and copious cocktails.

But Twist and Jamie (of Blue Buddha Sushi Lounge and Blue Wine Bar) had already requested apps. Nutballs. Okay, how about a soup or salad, or something sweet to end the evening with? Uh, taken and taken. So wait, the one non-professional in the bunch gets stuck with the main entrée? 

Apparently.

Well, alright. The smart thing to do - the safe thing to do - would be to make something that could be cooked low and slow unattended (Beef Bourguignon) or ahead of time and reheated (a fat, cheesy lasagna or a big pot of chili). I could hear Ina Garten, the queen of the dinner party, imploring me not to take unnecessary risks. Not to tempt the food gods. Not to become a total laughing stock ... 

But it had to be Nashville Hot Chicken served up traditional-style with a piece of white bread and pickles, and some coleslaw for good measure. I've made it before, you can find the recipe here. It's one of my favorite things to eat, and I wasn't sure many of my new friends were too familiar with it.

It was a risky dish to consider - there was the heat factor to think about - and making it ahead of time simply wasn't an option. I would have to cook "in the moment", hoping to deliver warm and crispy bird spiked with a sweet and spicy sauce to the table as hineys hit the chairs.

I knew I was crazy to try it, but it couldn't be helped. I had to go for it. 

And it was fine. Everything was fine. Someone may have even asked me for the recipe. I dialed down the heat factor so I didn't blow anyone's head off, I de-boned my chicken thighs and breasts (and cut the breasts in half) so they cooked faster, but I brined the meat overnight before frying to keep it flavorful and moist.

I got to know some of my favorite food folks better and was able to impart a bit of Nashville heritage to boot. But don't think I'll be making high-risk investments or looking into sky-diving any time soon.